Why great tennis players don’t always make great coaches

Britain’s Emma Raducanu stunned the world when she won the 2021 US Open. At age 18, she became the first singles qualifier since the start of the Open Era in 1968 to win a major championship. But less than two weeks later, Raducanu fired her coach. The teen, who had only played in four tour-level events, said she wanted someone with more experience.

“I need someone who has had that professional tour experience, and has been through it, and has seen players in my situation go through many years because it’s going to cost a lot,” Raducanu told The Guardian. She is now working with longtime WTA coach Torben Beltz, who helped Raducanu win her first round match at the Australian Open on Tuesday.

However, experience has never been a requirement for professional tennis success. For years, players have climbed into the top 10 and won Grand Slam titles without experienced coaches or former champions by their side. Some of the best and highest ranked players on the women’s and men’s tours have coaches who have never played a point at Melbourne Park, which currently hosts the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the season.

The average ranking of the coaches who work with the top 20 women is 896, and the coaches for the top 20 men have an average ranking of 254. Some have never even played professionally. Nearly 30 percent of the 49 coaches currently working with the top 20 women and men did not play enough professional tennis to build a WTA or ATP ranking.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t great coaches. Among that group is Toni Nadal, who taught his cousin Rafael Nadal since childhood and was his full-time coach for his first 16 Grand Slam titles.

Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1 in women’s singles and two-time Grand Slam champion, is coached by Craig Tyzzer, who also has no previous ATP rankings, but was awarded the WTA Coach of the Year award in 2019. Barty chose Tyzzer and stayed with him, partly because they get along well.

“We’ll just get through it together. When he suggests something, we go back and forth and have a discussion about what we want. There’s no one really bossing each other,” Barty said in 2017, their second year together.

Some players are attracted to former players as coaches because they are familiar with them, said Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College at Columbia University. But Beilock’s research has shown that great players don’t necessarily make great coaches.

According to Beilock, while talented players can perform at a high level, they can’t always explain how to smash their serve or make their backhand crosscourt a knife.

“It’s hard to describe exactly what you’ve done when you really do it automatically, if you don’t think about it,” she told FiveThirtyEight.

Top-level players may also struggle to empathize with the player they’re coaching and relate to those who can’t play at their level, Beilock said.

“They just don’t see it from that perspective.”

Poland’s Agnieszka Radwaska was delighted to add 18-time singles champion Martina Navratilova to her coaching team in 2014. But in the five months they worked together, Radwaska dropped three places in the rankings, from number 6 to number 9, reaching only one semi-final.

“It was an amazing experience to work with one of the greats of all time. However, we both agreed that since Martina could not commit 100% to the project, it would not work as a long-term partnership,” Radwaska posted on Twitter.

That’s not to say great players can’t become great coaches. Spain’s Conchita Martinez reached number 2 in the WTA rankings and won Wimbledon in 1994. She now coaches compatriot Garbiñe Muguruza, with whom she won Wimbledon 2017 and rose to number 1.

In the men’s race, former number 1 Carlos Moya helps coach Rafael Nadal and former number 2 Goran Ivanisevic supports Novak Djokovic. However, it is worth pointing out that both Nadal and Djokovic have more than one coach, and both have won most of their awards with different head coaches – Toni Nadal and Marian Vajda respectively. And neither Toni Nadal nor Vajda had great success as players or as coaches before those partnerships.

At the end of 2020, Felix Auger-Aliassime had a similar thought to Raducanu and wanted to add a more experienced coach to his team. The young Canadian had steadily climbed the rankings but was 0-6 in the tour-level finals, so he decided to hire Toni Nadal.

“I told myself it would be good to go to someone who has been at the highest level of our sport. Someone who has ever been where I want to go,” Auger-Aliassime told the ATP Tour.

It worked. Auger-Aliassime reached its first Grand Slam semifinal at last year’s US Open. And the 21-year-old is the ninth seed at the Australian Open, his highest series ever at a Grand Slam tournament.

But if Beilock was a player on tour, she would hire Raducanu’s former coach Andrew Richardson, who led the young star to the US Open title but never had such success as a player, reaching a career high of No. 133. But before he was fired, he was credited with having a “calming influence” on Raducanu.

Being a good coach is not automatic. Like anything else, it’s something that needs to be learned, Beilock said. Her advice to all players: just hire someone who is already a great coach.

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